* * *
August 2021
Thunderbolt Helped Win the Battle for France
The rugged, reliable and versatile P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bomber flew in many World War II battles, including the Battle for France.
Lt. Col. Ashby Taylor (USAF-ret.), a museum docent, described the P-47 and its role in the Battle for France during a presentation to a full house at Westpac on July 17. Six hundred and seventy-six people visited the museum that day, a record. Many came to to hear the presentation, which included a public flight of our P-47D by volunteer and pilot Alan Wojciak.

Paris and rest of France -- as well as Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Belgium -- fell to Hitler's Germany between May 10 and June 20, 1940. The battle to win back these and other countries began four years later with the June 6, 1944, Allied invasion of beaches in France's Normandy region.

The U.S. Ninth Air Force, which flew P-47s and other tactical planes in Europe to support Allied soldiers in WWII, was charged with covering the beaches on that and following days, Taylor said.

P-47s of the Ninth assumed a major role when Allied ground forces finally broke out of the hedgerows south of the beaches. Hedgerows – thick growths of shrubs and trees bordering roads and fields -- made ideal defensive positions for German soldiers, helping them to stall the Allied advance for 77 days.

But the Allies could not be turned back. "German officers attributed their failure to defeat the Allied breakout across France to the power of the 'Jabos,'" or fighter-bombers, Taylor said.

Taylor said the P-47s "would descend to treetop level to attack anything that moved on the narrow French roads." The Thunderbolt’s deadly armament – including eight .50-cal. machine guns, each of which could fire 600 to 800 rounds per minute, and 5-inch rockets or 2,500 pounds of bombs – helped Allied soldiers move forward.

P-47s initially flew from bases in England. But, as ground was seized, they flew from airfields that were quickly built in the Norman countryside. They were 5,000 feet long and close to the constantly moving front lines. A total of 280 of the temporary strips were built as Allied forces moved east through France. Planes also flew from captured German airfields.

The Allies began to break out of Normandy at Saint-Lo, France, on July 25, 1944. Six hundred low-flying Allied fighter-bombers of the Ninth Air Force were the first to fly in Operation Cobra. They concentrated their fire on enemy artillery and strong points.

Then 1,800 heavy bombers of the Eighth Air Force struck from high altitude.

But because dust and smoke from the previous attack made it difficult for bombardiers to see, bombs were released too soon, killing 111 American soldiers, including Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair, the highest-ranking U.S. soldier killed in the European Theater of Operations.

But German troops were stunned. Lt. Gen. Fritz Bayerlein, Commander of the proficient and well-trained Panzer Lehr Division, described the actions by Allied bombers as "hell.... The fields were burning and smoldering. My frontlines looked like a landscape on the moon, and at least 70 percent of my personnel were out of action."

 “Out in front everyone is holding out,” Bayerlein said. “…My grenadiers and my engineers. Not a single man is leaving his post. They are lying silent in their foxholes for they are dead. You may report to the Field Mashal [Gunther von Kluge, Commander of Germany’s Army Group B] that the Panzer Lehr Division is annihilated.”

Three days later, on July 28, German defenses around Saint-Lo collapsed. Thunderbolts from the 405th Fighter Group destroyed a German column of 122 tanks, 259 vehicles and 11 artillery pieces.

The final and decisive battle for Normandy took place shortly thereafter. P-47s were again heavily involved, joined by British Hawker Typhoons. Allied forces encircled and destroyed von Kluge’s force in the August 12-21 battle at Falaise.

The way was now open to Paris, and German troops there surrendered on August 25. The border of Germany itself lay ahead.

By this time, it was "impossible to bring one single railroad train across the Rhine" River, said Field Marshal Gerd von Runstedt, Commander of German Forces in the West.

Thunderbolts were active in the big battles that followed Falaise, Taylor said:

* Hurtgen Forest, September 19 to December 16, 1944 -- the longest battle on German ground in World War II, and the longest single battle of the war. The U.S. First Army suffered 33,000 casualties.

* Battle of the Bulge, December 16, 1944, to January 25, 1945 -- the final attempt by German forces to throw the Allies back. The goal was to capture the Belgian port of Antwerp. The full force of Allied airpower, including fighter-bombers like the P-47, was brought to bear when the weather cleared on Dec. 23, and the German thrust failed.

* Operation Varsity, the crossing of the northern Rhine River, March 22 to 28, 1945. Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945.

"If it's camouflaged, it's British; if it's silver, it's American; if it's not there, it's German," one German soldier said.

Docent Taylor -- a fighter pilot with 21 years of service in the U.S. Air Force who flew 160 combat missions in Vietnam and attended the USAF Fighter Weapons School and Test Pilot School -- described several kinds of Thunderbolt missions, including close air support and armored column cover.
In this photo to the right ground personnel of the 358th Fighter Group prepare to start the engine of a P-47 nicknamed "Chunky." See this photo at our "P-47 Thunderbolt in Europe" exhibit.

In close air support, or CAS, P-47s would attack enemy forces close to friendly forces. The precision and effectiveness of these missions was facilitated by ease of communication between planes and tanks. Read more about close air support at our website here:

In armored column cover, four to six Thunderbolts would “cover” the advance of tanks into enemy territory. A pilot would ride in a column of friendly tanks. When he saw enemy tanks, for instance, he told his companions flying overhead exactly where to strike. The results "endeared many tankers to the Thunderbolt," Taylor said.

Lt. Gen. Elwood "Pete" Quesada, commander of the Ninth Air Force's IX Tactical Air Command, "was instrumental in developing many of the principles of tactical air-ground warfare and CAS during the European campaign," Taylor said. It was Quesada's idea to put a pilot in a tank.

P-47s also flew combat air patrol and bomber escort missions. The turbo-supercharger of its 2,000 hp engine gave the Thunderbolt excellent performance at high altitudes – 425 mph at 30,000 feet -- and it had self-sealing fuel tanks and an armor-plated seat for the pilot.

In February of 1944, with the invasion of Europe approaching, P-47s were sent to help destroy enough German fighters to negate the effectiveness of the Luftwaffe on D-Day. It worked. Germany flew about 200 sorties over northern France that day. The Allies flew 15,000.

The P-47 initially was able to escort heavy bombers only to the German border. But with the development of large capacity external fuel tanks, it could fly well into Germany.

Thunderbolts of the Eighth Air Force’s 56th Fighter Group, the top-scoring group in aerial victories, downed 677.5 enemy planes, Taylor said. Francis Gabreski of the 56th shot down 28 enemy planes, third highest in the U.S. Army Air Forces.

Maj. Don Blakeslee of the Eighth Air Force’s 4th Fighter Group, flying from England in the P-47's first aerial combat mission on April 15, 1943, scored the Thunderbolt's first air-to-air kill, an Fw 190. Blakeslee flew more combat missions against the Luftwaffe than any other fighter pilot, ultimately achieving 15.5 aerial victories.

P-47s flew more than 546,000 combat sorties in World War II in Europe and the Pacific. They destroyed more than 11,874 enemy aircraft (on the ground and in the air); 86,000 railroad cars; 9,000 locomotives; 68,000 trucks; 6,000 armored vehicles and tanks, and scored 3,752 air-to-air kills, fourth highest among U.S. fighters.
The P-47 was the most-produced American fighter of World War II, with 15,536 being built. Republic Aviation was the prime contractor; Curtiss built 350. Two hundred and three P-47s were sent to the Soviet Union. At least one was captured by Germany and was probably used in several reconnaissance missions over England before D-Day. A total of 3,499 Thunderbolts were lost to all causes in combat in World War II.

A P-47 of the 325th Fighter Group carries external fuel tanks in the photo above.

The P-47 was big. British Spitfire pilots joked that you could escape enemy fire by running around inside.

It was also tough. The museum’s was crashed twice by the previous owner.

The 56th Fighter Group's Robert S. Johnson, who finished the war with 27 victories, had his own story about how tough the P-47 was.

Returning to England in 1943 from one mission with his P-47 already crippled in a dogfight, he was attacked by a German fighter. The Thunderbolt absorbed the additional fire -- until the German pilot ran out of ammunition. He flew alongside Johnson, rocked his wings and saluted. Johnson made it back to England. After landing, he tried to count the bullet holes in his Thunderbolt, but stopped at 200.

Later, Johnson said, "If you want a picture to send to your girl, stand in front of a Mustang. If you want to go home to your girl, fly a Thunderbolt."
Rich Tuttle

Rich Tuttle
Thunderbolt's Pre-flight Inspection Included Check of Turbocharger
Alan Wojciak's inspection of our P-47 Thunderbolt before his public flight of the plane on July 17, during a presentation on the Thunderbolt and the World War II Battle for France, included an earlier check of its turbocharger system, which takes hot air from the engine, compresses it, and sends it back to the engine for additional power at high altitude.

Only about 14 of the 15,600 Thunderbolts built during World War II are still flying, and ours is just one of four with a working turbocharger.

The turbocharger has a separate oil system which means, among other things, that its turbine wheels must be free to operate. These and other items were checked during an inspection conducted by volunteer and pilot Wojciak before the July 17 flight.

His earlier inspection included a check of the plane's landing gear. On takeoff, Wojciak said, the plane’s gear won’t fit all the way into the wheel wells as it retracts unless a valve allowing full retraction is free to work. It was checked as well.

Since everything is hydraulic in the Thunderbolt -- unlike in our SBD Dauntless that Wojciak flew in a June 25 presentation on the Battle of Midway – fluid levels must be up, and all were checked before the flight.

Upon completion of other checks, Wojciak taxiied out to Runway 13 and took off. He completed several low passes and returned to park in front of the Westpac hangar.

Alan pauses by the P-47 after his flight.
The museum's Thunderbolt is a P-47D-40-RA, delivered to the U.S. Army Air Forces in July 1945. It served with various National Guard and Air Force Reserve units until it was sent to Peru. It was purchased by a collector from Peru in 1969, and sent to Harlingen, Texas, for restoration. This aircraft had two crashes and, after the second, was restored.
Did You Know...
Capt. Colin P. Kelly Jr. was thought by many Americans to have been awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on Dec. 10, 1941, as Japanese forces were preparing to invade the Philippines. In fact, he was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second highest award for heroism.

Here's what happened:

After the Japanese attack on the Philippines, on Dec 8, 1941, only a few planes were left to face the impending Japanese invasion. Kelly and his crew spent the night without food, sleeping under their plane on the island of Luzon. Three B-17C aircraft, including Kelly’s, flew to Clark Field to get gas and bombs. They joined two other B-17s already at Clark. An imminent air attack sent the five bombers off to their respective targets before refueling and bomb loading were completed. Captain Kelly had only three 600-pound bombs aboard and orders to attack an aircraft carrier thought to be sailing off the coast.

While Kelly’s crew did not find an aircraft carrier, they did sight a Japanese amphibious assault task force north of Aparri. The Japanese force included what they believed to be a battleship.

Kelly made two passes at 20,000 feet while the bombardier set up for a precise drop. On the third run, the bombardier released the bombs, which bracketed the ship, later identified as a heavy cruiser. Smoke prevented an accurate assessment of the attack.

As the B-17 returned to Clark, it was attacked by enemy fighters. The first attack killed one crewmember. The fighters followed the bomber and attacked again. A fire broke out as the plane approached Clark. Kelly ordered his crew to bail out and, though the fire had spread to the flight deck, he remained at the controls. Five crewmen bailed out. As the aircraft exploded, the co-pilot was thrown clear. Kelly was still at the controls. The plane crashed about five miles east of Clark Field. Kelly’s body was found at the crash site.

Early reports incorrectly credited Kelly and crew for sinking a Japanese battleship. A near miss may have damaged the cruiser.

Kelly "became a hero due to what Americans thought was our first victory against the Japanese aggressors", according to a 2018 account published by the Stephen F. Austin State University at Nacogdoches, Texas. "The message sent from the Philippines to the United States was garbled but the public thought that Captain Kelly and his crew had destroyed a Japanese battleship. Americans thought that Captain Kelly was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.”

Colin Kelly was recommended for the Medal of Honor by Maj. Gen. Lewis Brereton, commander of the Far East Air Forces. The award he received was the Distinguished Service Cross, on the orders of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters.

"America needed a hero and they got one in Captain Colin P. Kelly, Jr.," the account said.